Letter to a Young Person Going to College


Joseph John GurneyEditor’s Note: The following remarkable letter, excerpted here, was written by Catherine Gurney to her younger brother, Joseph John Gurney, in 1803, when Joseph was leaving to study under a private tutor at Oxford.  Joseph, tenth of eleven children, was quite young when his mother passed away; Catherine, the eldest sister, was consequently quite maternal in her love for her younger siblings, which is amply illustrated in this missive.  Proof of the value of Catherine’s advice may be found in the fact that Joseph John Gurney went on to achieve prominence and renown as a Quaker theologian and writer.


That I may not quite lose my influence over thee, in thy absence, dear Joseph, I mean to give thee, in writing, some general principles of conduct, which it would be a great comfort for me to believe thou wouldst attend to.

The next two or three years will be most important to thee; and on the right use of them thy future good will in great measure depend.

Nothing but experience will convince thee of this, but I can now see it for thee; and will leave nothing undone that it is in my power to do, to satisfy my own conscience concerning thee, and to make thy path safe and easy.  I wish thou mayst sometimes recollect what a friend thou hast in me, and that if I know my own heart, there is scarcely anything I would not sacrifice for thy sake.

Whilst I have anxiously and affectionately thought over all that concerns thee, it has struck me that thy duties may be comprised under three principal divisions.  Those of religion, those of social life, and those more particularly owing to thyself, or which relate to thy own objects and pursuits.

First – The duties of religion differ in their external form, according to the capacities and circumstances of the individual, though the internal principle must be the same in all, and this principle leads to a simple endeavor to make acting right, whatever may be our situation, our first object, and in order to do this, to make inclination and impulse secondary to conscience.

It requires little or no appearance of peculiar devotion, but it resides in the heart and manifests itself in the conduct.  Something external is however necessary to confirm the internal principle of religion, and as thou wilt now be circumstanced, it will be more incumbent on thee, than it has before been, to attend to this; for the more external temptation there is, the more do we require to have that principle fortified which can alone stand against temptation.  Thou art now about to enter upon a new era of life, in which thy own principle must be thy chief security, and hence whatever tends to confirm this is of far more importance to thee than ever.  To require a particular degree of strictness, as to the externals of religion, at thy age, is not my aim.  All I desire of thee is to avoid a few things, and to do a few things. 

Above all, I desire thee to avoid joking on religious subjects, a fault which is very common to young people.  Whatever relates, either remotely or immediately to religion, I wish thou mayst be able to treat seriously, or say nothing about.  Much depends on the habit of mind acquired by conversation and sympathy.  And though I do not ask thee to stand forth as the champion of religion, yet shouldst thou hear the subject unworthily spoken of, I earnestly wish thee to avoid taking part in what must corrupt thy heart, and is moreover proof of a narrow, prejudiced, illiberal mind.  And if the temptation be ever thrown in thy way, I also beg of thee to avoid reading books written against religion, of whatever kind, whether or argument or satire – at least till experience shall have fully confirmed thy own principles.

As to what thou art to do, it is but little, but that little ought to be more conscientiously observed.  Thou wilt, of course, always go to meeting on a Sunday, and if it is only to oblige me, do not lay aside the distinction of Sundays from other days, in thy own mind, or in thy pursuits.  Taking it only in a moral point of view, but much more in a religious one, recollect how salutary an institution it is, and how much it is for the general interests of society, as well as for our own individual good, to set the day apart, as much as we can, for sober reflection on our own conduct, for reading the Scriptures, and any other reading of a moral or religious tendency.  I believe thou hast too much principle, and good sense, as well as good taste, to pass the day in idleness, as so many loiterers do; I had far rather thou shouldst work hard at the common business of a weekday, than do so.

Do not fear being ridiculed for appearing religious.  Amongst well-bred and judicious people, such as I trust thou wilt be with, there is no danger of it; on the contrary thou wouldst be the more respected for it. 

And when thou art reading the Scriptures, remember that there is much that thou must expect to find mysterious, and some passages perhaps to thee wholly unintelligible; but let not this shake thy confidence in their divine authority, nor thy belief in Christianity, nor lead thee into reasoning above thy understanding.

Secondly – With regard to thy social duties, I must entreat thee to beware of entering into any pleasures, or forming any connections, of whatever kind, that thy conscience tells thee thy father or I would disapprove.  This, till thou hast attained more experience, will be thy best and safest guide; and I earnestly hope thou wilt attend to this precept, as being one of the most important of any I shall give thee.

Cultivate a principle of true honor, which comprehends much.  Though in different terms, it appears to me to be almost the same thing in spirit, as the Christian maxim of “doing to others as we would they should do to us.”  Beware of satirizing those who may not suit thy temper or thy taste; and endeavor to speak generously, as well as to feel benevolently, towards others.  Be very cautious never to betray secrets, especially the affairs of thy own family, through inadvertency, for otherwise thou wouldst never do it.  Recollect how important it is for our conversation to be well-timed.  I need scarcely advise thee to be, as far as thou art able, the gentleman.  Thy taste evidently leads thee to this, as well as to despise low and debasing pleasures and associations.  Equally avoid low and debasing subjects of conversation, vulgar jokes, etc.; which, more than almost anything, undermine virtuous principle.

Thirdly – As to thy objects of pursuit….In thy leisure hours have a decided object, either of exercise and recreation, or of intellectual amusement; and if the choice of books depends at all on thyself, choose the best, and those of the most established repute of every kind; and if it is only from a principle of honor towards me, refrain, dear Joseph, from reading any that are said to have a licentious tendency.

Whether or not you are required to rise early, I recommend thee to keep to the practice of it.  I have no doubt that thou wilt find it more and more beneficial as thy employments increase upon thee.  General temperance and sobriety of conduct I scarcely need mention; but I must observe, that as years increase, temptations increase; temptations to pleasure under various forms; and as temperance is the law which forbids all kinds of immoderate or unlawful pleasures, it becomes, as we advance in life, a most important duty to cultivate this principle in our hearts. 

All unnecessary indulgence degrades, while the reverse ennobles our nature.

“So shalt thou find favor and good understanding, in the sight of God and man.”  – Prov. ‘iii.

— Catherine Gurney